By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
When it comes to the location for playing in the Georgia high school football finals, Carrollton head coach Rayvan Teague captures the thoughts of just about every other coach in the state.
“I don’t care if you’re playing in a cow pasture,” said Teague, who won a Class AAA state championship in 2000 as the head coach at Swainsboro. “It’s a real accomplishment for your program just to get there.”
Back then, the semifinals were played in the Georgia Dome, with the championships played at the home field of one of the finalists, as long as their stadium was large enough. But due to the huge crowds clamoring to see the finals, the Georgia High School Association’s executive committee voted five years ago to move the semifinals back to home stadiums and play the finals in the Georgia Dome.
“Everything I’ve heard has been positive for the most part,” GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin said of the switch. “I think it has worked out for the best for a variety of reasons.
“Before, schools were pre-selling tickets knowing that there were going to be more people buying tickets than their stadiums could hold,” Swearngin said. “The reality of the situation is that the finals are what many people see as the crowning event in Georgia high school football, and that event should take place at a great venue.”
But a number of coaches, particularly those in smaller communities throughout the state, would like to see the semifinals return to the Dome and the finals return to community stadiums. The reasons are largely financial.
“It’s a tremendous economic benefit to small communities,” said Teague, who just completed his 11th season at Carrollton. “You’ve got anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people, and pretty much all of them are going to eat near your stadium. Half of those people are from the other team and 30 or even maybe 50 percent of them are going to spend the night, which means they are going to eat more than once or twice and then gas up in your community, too.”
Dooly County head coach Jimmy Hughes, in his third year coaching the Bobcats, said playing the finals in the Dome makes for an extremely expensive outing for families, particularly those from south Georgia.
“It’s hard for a family of five to drive three or four hours up to Atlanta, and then have to spend $100 ($20 per ticket) to see the game,” said Hughes, who has Dooly County in the Class A (public) finals for the first time since 2002.
Still, Swearngin believes playing the finals in a centralized location like the Dome is what is best for the sport. Prior to 2008, Georgia was one of only four states that did not play its football finals at a neutral venue. One of the other states was California, which has sectional champions because the state is so large.
“I think it’s important to remember that these are the state championship games, and not games benefiting individual schools,” Swearngin said. “All of the schools should be able to share in the experience, and we have many people who don’t have a team in the finals but still like to come down and enjoy a whole day of championship football.”
Teague admits to seeing the logistical merits of playing the finals in the Dome as opposed to the semifinals, which, due to scheduling, could run the risk of conflicting with the SEC Championship. But he said playing the semi finals there gives even more high school players the opportunity to suit up and compete in the same venue as National Football League and big-time college football players.
Lamar County head coach Franklin Stephens agrees. As an assistant at Camden County and as head coach at Tucker from 2007 to 2011, Stephens has coached in semi finals and finals, at the Dome and in home stadiums. He prefers to play the semifinals in the Dome.
“You had five classifications, that’s 20 teams that got to experience playing in the Georgia Dome when the semifinals where there,” Stephens said. “It’s great to give that time of exposure to as many kids as you can.”
Stephens, who won state titles in 2008 and in 2011 in the Georgia Dome, said winning the finals in a community stadium makes for a much better post-game celebration, which he said was missed by Tucker fans.
“In the Dome, they have to stay on schedule with everything,” Stephens said. “Everything is rushed. You win the game. They give you the trophy. Take your picture and then it’s like, ‘OK, next.’
“Back in 2003, when I was at Camden and we won it Valdosta (21-7), that was a special moment,” Stephens said. “People stayed around and hugged and celebrated. It’s something people will never forget.”
It is that magical experience, Mt. Zion-Carroll head coach Ken Holloway said, that cannot be duplicated in the Dome. Holloway was on the staff at Bowden in 2001, when that team hosted the Class A final, a 35-13 loss to Buford.
“I’m a small town boy myself and there’s just nothing like that atmosphere,” Holloway said. “The whole town is excited. There’s really nothing like it.”
As for the players, Sandy Creek junior Khari Lain conveys their sentiments: Play the finals in the Dome.
“It’s just a great atmosphere,” said Lain, a two-year starter at linebacker for the Patriots who was a freshman with they won the AAA title in 2010. “You’re playing where the pros play. The field, all the fans. It’s just a great atmosphere.”